The fact that a movie like this can still exist without my ever having heard of it before now is one of the things that keeps me alive. Conceived as a pilot for a supernatural TV series that never happened (it would have been called The Haunted), The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre is a made-for-TV movie created by Joseph Stefano, best known for penning the screenplay to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

As such, The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre combines elements of horror, hauntings, paranormal investigation, crime, and film noir. As with many of my favorite pictures from the era, a genuine haunting is juxtaposed against (and informed by) a noir-ish tale of very human greed, gaslighting, and murder.

A young Martin Landau plays the delightfully-named Nelson Orion, an architect and amateur ghost hunter whose own past plays into the mystery at the heart of the story. Diane Baker, who was also in Marnie and William Castle’s Strait-Jacket the same year, delivers a stellar performance as both the film’s femme fatale and also perhaps its greatest victim.

The real star of the show, however, is the breathtaking cinematography by the great Conrad Hall, coupled with some impressive fades and transitions, and a soundscape that keeps everything feeling eerie and just a little unhinged, even while the unfolding of the plot is predictably talky.

Let’s be clear, if you’ve been following along here for very long, you’ll know that there are few things I love more than ghostly movies from the 1960s that feel a little like they were made for TV, and this is one of the best of them that I have ever seen. The ghost itself looks genuinely spooky, and the actors’ descriptions of it as drenched in blood, “a thing half born, half dead” are suitably evocative.

The mystery is interesting and complicated, the kind where the supernatural element never overwhelms the human crimes that inform it, nor the other way around. It’s always a rare gift when a movie can make its naturalistic subplot as interesting as its supernatural one without one or both feeling anemic.

Despite all this, I had somehow never heard of this film until Trevor Henderson RTed a tweet by Guilherme Gontijo in praise of it. The simple images he shared combined with my affection for this type of thing were enough to settle it immediately at the top of my “to watch” list, and the fact that it was on Tubi meant that I could do so sooner rather than later.

Discovering a new film like this is one of the great joys of doing what I do, and sharing it is an almost equal pleasure. So, do yourself a favor and watch The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre and then spend some time imagining the TV show we almost got but didn’t…

Twenty years ago, I did something that remains the best thing I have ever done: I married the love of my life, my spouse and partner, Grace. We celebrated our anniversary over the last few days, during which time we stayed in an adorable cabin next to a mountain stream, where we were greeted by a rare sight of a heron eating a fish (a good omen, as it turned out). It was a wonderful trip.

The time away from the online world was good for me, but it also means I was away from the computer when a lot of things happened, so let’s tackle a few of those. My new column on folk horror launched at Signal Horizon. I’ll be discussing the subject every month, through the lens (at least for the first year or so) of the All the Haunts Be Ours Blu-ray set from Severin Films.

For this first installment (and the next one; the doc is long) we’ll be going over Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched, the extensive folk horror documentary from Kier-La Janisse that opens the Blu-ray set.

Speaking of columns, my others are still moving along, and the latest installment of my board game column dropped at Unwinnable, where I’m writing about Tiny Epic Dungeons this month, a recent Kickstarter acquisition. Meanwhile, in proper “me writing for Unwinnable” fashion, I also recently covered some… very disparate films over there, writing reviews of a pair of kung fu pictures and a “classic” erotic thriller from the late ’90s.

I’ve also been movies editor for Exploits, an Unwinnable publication, for a couple of months now, and my latest acquisition was actually the cover story this month, as David Busboom wrote an unmissable review of one of my favorite weirdo flicks, The Monster Club.

Finally, this one hasn’t happened quite yet, but later this month, Tyler Unsell and I will be hosting a live screening of The Mask (1961) at the Stray Cat Film Center, followed by a live episode of the Horror Pod Class. Will it be sssssssssmokin’? No, it will not. But it WILL be in 3D, complete with special stereoscopic 3D glasses at the door and giveaways, trivia, and vaguely academic discussion to follow.

If that sounds like a lot, think how I feel? I’m gradually getting back into the swing of things this week and there’s a lot more to come but, for now, why not have a drink at The Monster Club. I’m sure a member of the wait staff will be with you shortly…

Tonight, I watched Men, a movie that is more awkward to write/talk about than anything since Us (2019). I had a good time and liked it fine. I’m not here to write a review, though you may be able to extrapolate something of a review from what I’m about to say, if you want that.

As I was watching it, something clicked into place. Something I’ve been trying to get at in conversation and on episodes of the Horror Pod Class for a while now. There have been a lot of people complaining, lately, about horror movies being “too political,” or about there being metaphors in their horror movies, as if this is a new thing. We’ve talked about this several times on the pod.

For the most part, these people end up getting dragged (and often rightly so) on Twitter, at least in the circles where I hang around. Horror has always been political, obviously, and pretty much every story contains metaphors. Despite the oft-shared joke from Garth Marenghi, all writers, indeed, use subtext (whether they know it or not) because text without subtext is virtually impossible. And yet, for all that we may disparage these positions, they’re obviously complaining about something.

In many cases, that’s simply that they’re no longer the center of the universe – or that they’re realizing they never were. It’s people who could blissfully overlook the politics of films from yesteryear suddenly being confronted with things that no longer privilege them. But that’s not the whole of it.

There genuinely is a difference (perhaps many of them) between much of the horror of yesterday (classic or otherwise) and the so-called “elevated” or prestige horror films of today. There’s something there that people are seeing, but they’re misidentifying it, calling it by the wrong name. Watching Men, I think I finally figured out what it is.

Most horror films of the past can be read literally. No matter how rich they may be in metaphor, if you read them as a purely literal chain of events, without subtext or theme or added meaning, they still make sense. Psycho, Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Night of the Living Dead, The Shining, you name it – you can recite the particulars of those films as a literal chain of events that make sense, without taking into account whatever metaphorical weight they may also possess.

In Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a group of young people run afoul of a cannibal family in the sticks. This is true, regardless of what metaphorical reading you then apply to the narrative – but that isn’t to suggest that those metaphorical readings aren’t there. Indeed, they are, just as rich and robust and important to the functioning of the film as the literal reading. Merely that the film can be read without them.

Even ambiguous films like The Innocents or The Haunting are ambiguous only in the sense that they support a handful of competing literal readings. A literal reading is still possible, without delving into subtext or metaphor.

Many of this more modern crop of films, however, make almost no sense without their metaphors. Read as a series of literal events, they are gobbledygook. It is only once the metaphors are applied that the films can be read at all. If you simply attempt to read them literally, as a sequence of events, they are basically incomprehensible.

This is what people are complaining about, when they ask for movies that “aren’t about anything.” Because of course no one wants a movie that isn’t about anything. They would hate that. Just as they don’t actually want movies that can’t be read as metaphors. Rather, they want movies that can be read literally.

And, to head off some angry replies, I’m not advocating for either side here. I have my own personal preferences, but I think there’s room at the table for both kinds of stories. Call them poetry and prose, if you like. That’s not the point of this post. The point is that people are identifying a real phenomenon – good, bad, or indifferent – but they’re misidentifying it. And I think it leads to confusion and hurt feelings and strawman arguments on both sides.

This isn’t really here to sway anyone. Rather, it’s to have something that I can point back to when, inevitably, this comes up again and again in the future, as it has so many times in the past.

Well, another Panic Fest is more-or-less over. Technically, there’s another night or two of programming, and there’s a chance I may go out tomorrow night to catch Watcher or The Sadness, but give or take, it’s done.

I saw a few good movies, the best of which was probably Spider One’s Allegoria, and I saw a few bad movies, the worst of which was definitely Dashcam, which I described on Letterboxd as, “An absolute torrent of bafflingly terrible decisions wrapped around an adequate V/H/S segment.” Seriously, Dashcam is a piece of shit, and not in any remotely fun way. Don’t watch it, definitely don’t give it any money, and I’m done talking about it, because I don’t want to give it any oxygen.

As you can maybe guess from the Allegoria review up there, I was covering the Fest for The Pitch this year, and there are a few more reviews where that one came from, including a review of Midnight and capsule reviews for a few other highlights. Assuming I don’t make it out to any more, I’ll have seen nine films from this year’s Panic Fest, several of which I watched online rather than in-theatre for various reasons that include because there’s still a fucking pandemic on.

I also watched a few short films. I typically miss the short blocks at festivals, and I did this year, too, but I caught a few of the shorts online, including some where the filmmakers had reached out to me. A couple highlights include “The Pey,” about an Instagrammer who shares a gif and unleashes a monster, and “They See You,” which had its world premier at the Fest.

Something I did see in theatres was the new Doctor Strange, which I watched this morning and which I’m not going to talk about here because of spoilers and because we’ll be talking about it on the next episode of the Horror Pod Class, which is also why I saw it today. So tune in for that or, if you’re local, join us at the Stray Cat Film Center on May 24 at 7pm while we screen the very best Dr. Strange movie – the 1992 Full Moon classic Doctor Mordrid.

Anyone who has been following me very long will be familiar with one particular shot from Pacific Rim; a scene from the film’s (great) world-establishing montage, in which a kid puts toys of jaegers and kaiju on a toy shelf.

It’s the shot I always use when I’m talking about the movie, because I love it so much. But it’s also a shot that has frustrated me for most of a decade, because the toys I love most from it – those stylized, sofubi-esque figures that are front-and-center – are ones they never actually made so that I could buy them and put them on my own toy shelf.

Or so I thought. Recently, I learned that, in fact, they did make those toys, and not long after the film came out, to boot. In 2015, NECA released them as a convention exclusive – a long box with five soft vinyl figures; the two prominently featured in that shot, two others that you can see off to one side, and a fifth that, as far as I can tell, isn’t in the picture at all.

Better still, even though they were convention exclusives, you can still buy them – sometimes even at a reasonable price – on eBay. Which is where I picked up a set, because I have literally been wanting to put those toys on my shelf since 2013.

The figures are great – I mean look at them. But I think the thing that makes me love them the most is that they aren’t of the film’s main players. It would have been so easy, so tempting from a marketing standpoint, to make figures of the jaegers and kaiju that dominate the movie. But that wouldn’t have made sense in the shot in question, because that was part of the montage, meaning that these toys had to be earlier jaegers and kaiju. And they are.

From left to right, as I have them laid out up above, the kaiju are Hardship, Trespasser, and Karloff, while the jaegers are Romeo Blue and Horizon Brave. All of whom barely show up in the movie at all, and only during that aforementioned montage.

Like the montage itself, which is hands-down the best part of a movie that I love unabashedly, these toys are so great in part because they help to make what could have been a fairly simple world feel big and strange and lived-in. Plus, I just love having them to play with.

As you saw in my last post, a lot has been going on lately. I mentioned a few things, all of them adjacent to the movies, and now it’s time to talk about them a little more…

First off, Panic Fest starts next week. For those who aren’t local to the Kansas City area, Panic Fest is our own homegrown film festival celebrating horror, sci-fi, and thrillers, and it’s grown up a lot in the half-dozen or so years I’ve been attending. This year, I’ll be covering the fest for another Kansas City institution – our very own dirtbag newspaper, The Pitch.

I’m not sure yet which movies I’ll be seeing when, but there’s a number that I want to catch, including Allegoria, Dashcam, Malibu Horror Story, and Midnight, to name a few. If you’re going to be at the fest, drop me a line and maybe we can catch up sometime.

Or, if you’re in the area and can’t wait for Panic Fest to kick off, you could always come by the Stray Cat Film Center as Tyler Unsell and I host another live episode of the Horror Pod Class on Wednesday, April 27, where we’ll be watching a made-for-TV movie from very early in John Carpenter’s career – that just happens to also be one of my very favorite Carpenter flicks.

As far as news relating to movies goes, I saved the biggest for last. Recently, I became the movies editor for Exploits, an Unwinnable publication. At Exploits, what we basically do is provide short blurbs about movies, books, music, games, and so on that we’ve been enjoying lately. They can be new, they can be old, they can be mainstream, they can be weird.

As movies editor, my primary job is to source a 350-word essay each month about a film. It can be any film, from any era. With me in the catbird seat, the odds are it’ll usually be monster movies. But that’s far from a requirement.

The news got announced on social media a while back, so I’ve already received a number of pitches and, indeed, filled out my first few months worth of essays. But, if you haven’t already and you have any interest in writing a little about a movie, feel free to send me a pitch. The 350-word cap is firm and we pay $10 per essay and beyond that, just about everything is fair game. Send me a pitch before you write, though, in case someone else is already writing about Attack of the Crab Monsters, or whatever.

I’ve also been helping with the film programming for this year’s NecronomiCon in Providence, which probably means I will also be in attendance there. That’s a few months away yet, though, and there’s a lot that can change between now and then. Regardless, the film programming is very much still a work in progress, but hopefully there’ll be some news on that front soon, too…

By now, it is no longer a matter of much surprise that I have been working extensively on the newest attempt to bring the Iron Kingdoms, setting of games like Warmachine and Hordes, to the world of tabletop roleplaying. And I think that I’ve made it pretty clear already that our latest project has been a long-awaited sourcebook for one of the game’s original factions – the Nightmare Empire of Cryx.

For those who aren’t familiar with the setting, the Iron Kingdoms were first introduced more than 20 years ago – in a trilogy of adventure modules for what was then 3rd-edition D&D called the “Witchfire Trilogy.” Within two years, it had given rise to Warmachine, the first tabletop wargame to make use of the setting, and one that’s still being played today.

I’ve been a fan ever since that time, and I’ve been working with Privateer Press as a freelancer – on and off – for about a decade now. I’ve written licensed fiction, including my first novel, and worked on the previous attempt at creating an Iron Kingdoms roleplaying game. Now, I’m working very closely on the creation of Iron Kingdoms: Requiem, which brings the setting to the 5th edition of the world’s most popular roleplaying game system.

And here’s what makes our latest project, which should be hitting Kickstarter any day now, so exciting: Since that very first book, Cryx has been one of the core factions of the setting. An island nation of mechanical undead, ruled by a dragon who is essentially a living god, Cryx was one of the original four factions of Warmachine. And yet, despite no less than three versions of Iron Kingdoms roleplaying, dating back as far as 2001, there has never been a book that gave you the tools you needed to play as the forces of Cryx in a roleplaying game.

Until now. Recently, Privateer Press released their first sneak peek at the new material that’s coming in Iron Kingdoms: Nightmare Empire: a list of new classes and subclasses, several of which, I’m happy to say, I worked on designing.

But that’s far from all that will be included in the book. There’s all sorts of exciting stuff in there. A history and gazetteer of the Nightmare Empire, new spells, new monsters, rules for Cryxian warjacks, and even rules for making and playing an iron lich – one of the setting’s most iconic creations, and one that my regular GM and gaming buddy has been clamoring to play as for 20 years now.

I’ll be posting more about my work on the game as the Kickstarter launches but, for now, this is one of the big projects that has been occupying a lot of my time of late, and I’m very excited for people to get to see it come to fruition.

Of course, that’s not all I’ve been up to lately. Panic Fest is starting this coming weekend, and I’ll be covering it for The Pitch, and I’ve also got some other movie-adjacent announcements and things, but those I’ll save for their own post this week…

What feels like a lifetime ago but was, in actual fact, only a decade, Silvia Moreno-Garcia and I co-edited a little anthology called Fungi that was about, well, I think the title makes it fairly clear. This was the culmination of a pretty much lifelong fascination with fungal creatures, on my part, and was specifically kicked off by Silvia and I chatting about Matango.

As part of the process of putting Fungi together, we created a database (now likely lost to the mists of time) of fungal stories, movies, and so on. It contained a few of my favorites, including William Hope Hodgson’s germinal short story, “The Voice in the Night,” as well as various adaptations of same, such as the aforementioned Matango. It also included more obscure favorites, such as the moldy corpses of Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin alongside things I had never read or seen.

Of those latter, the one that jumped highest on my personal list was The Unknown Terror, which has the distinction of maybe being the earliest fungal horror film, even beating the “Voice in the Night” episode of Suspicion by a year. What’s more, the fungal horror of The Unknown Terror is far from incidental. Not only is there a fungus-filled cavern, there are multiple fungus people, before all is said and done.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The Unknown Terror was directed by Charles Marquis Warren, a guy best known for making Westerns. In fact, most of his other feature film credits occupy that genre, and he also helped to co-create the TV series Rawhide. Before he became a director or a screenwriter, though, Warren wrote stories for the pulps – a place where the plot of Unknown Terror would have been right at home.

Warren didn’t write this picture, however. The sole screenwriting credit belongs to Kenneth Higgins, whose only other horror credit is the jokey 1943 flick Ghosts on the Loose, starring Bela Lugosi and the East Side Kids. Nowhere in the film’s credits or background is any reference to Hodgson, and yet any story that involves fungus turning people into things owes something to “The Voice in the Night.”

Though it was released as the front-half of a double-bill (with Back from the Dead, also directed by Warren), Unknown Terror was always going to be a B-picture. It was a product of Robert Lippert’s Regal Pictures, a production unit under 20th Century Fox created exclusively to shoot B-movies in Cinemascope, as a way to assure theatre owners that there would be plenty of features in that format.

As such, The Unknown Terror spends an unfortunate amount of its time on colonial fears of “native superstitions” or on lengthy caving sequences that call to mind MST3k jokes about rock climbing. Once they do finally reach the fungus cavern, however, it’s pretty great. Not only is the cavern itself full of cobwebby fungus that’s delightfully rubbery, it’s also home to several fungus people, who look sort of like lumpy Morlocks.

And all of that is before the fungus itself begins pouring down. It seems that the villainous doctor character, played by film heavy Gerald Milton, has discovered a type of fungus that grows incredibly fast. So fast, in fact, that you can watch it happen, represented in the movie by what look like thick soap suds being poured down the cave walls in what is actually one of the better set-pieces in all of ’50s horror.

The other interesting thing about The Unknown Terror comes far from the fungus cave, at the very beginning of the film, when we are treated to performances (including a theme song of sorts) by the “King of Calypso,” Sir Lancelot.

Lancelot Victor Edward Pinard, better known by his stage name Sir Lancelot, will be familiar to longtime readers and vintage horror fans for his appearances in several of Val Lewton’s classics from the 1940s, perhaps most notably I Walked with a Zombie. Here, he is performing a similar role more than a decade later, doing much of the heavy lifting required to convince us that this film takes place in the Caribbean while also providing exposition about the MacGuffin at the heart of the narrative.

“Down, down, down in the bottomless cave,” Lancelot sings, “Down, down, down beyond the last grave / If he’s got the stuff of fame / If he’s worthy of his name / He may get another chance but he’s never more the same / He’s got to suffer to be born again.”

“Movies like this aren’t totally worthless. They provide employment for a number of people.”

– Vincent Canby

John Hough directed one of my favorite haunted house movies, The Legend of Hell House, which somehow manages to have a PG rating while still containing all of the lurid, sweaty sexuality of the book upon which it is based. So, I had both high hopes and reservations when it came to watching his adaptation of Incubus, taken from Ray Russell’s 1976 novel of the same name, which is essentially a slasher movie if slashing was replaced with raping.

This is not a sensitive movie, is what I’m saying. Incubus has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the rapiest films ever made, and the sexual assaults that occur within its runtime are always distinctly brutal, even when they take place off-screen. Despite all that brutality, Incubus is also a slow movie, which is where most of the complaints that I’ve seen come in. (No one who is going to be too put off by the sexual assault probably makes it past the logline, to be fair.)

It certainly showcases more blood and nudity than Legend of Hell House but, like that film, it manages most of its luridness through suggestion as much as shock. This is a movie where the implications are as disturbing as anything seen, and a film that is absolutely drenched in what Letterboxd user nathaxnne identifies as “windswept dread” and gothic family secrets, which should come as no surprise from either Hough or Russell.

Incubus also features more recitations of the word “sperm” per minute than probably any other film released outside a medical context. John Cassavetes plays one of the sweatiest, most uncomfortable protagonists in horror movie history, a guy who, at one point, utters the phrase, “I swear to God, there’s gonna be a rape tonight,” and yet he is certainly the “good guy” compared to many of the people around him.

I didn’t love Incubus. The subject matter alone kind of guaranteed that. But I loved the atmosphere that Hough and company conjured. This is small-town gothic at its finest. The witch museum is great, and so are the gothic houses, and so is the incubus itself, when it shows up at the end for all of two seconds. Also, I love that this is apparently supposed to be Wisconsin, a state that is definitely known for its rich witch hunting history.

I never really collected comics. Oh, I had comics aplenty – some of them ones I had inherited from my older brothers, others that I bought myself, from back-issue bins and garage sales and, yes, sometimes even brand new. I got them, I read them, I bagged and boarded them, and I kept them, but it was never really a collecting thing for me. I didn’t have specific “white whales” I was in search of, and I didn’t keep anything for its value down the road (thank goodness).

I just bought what I wanted to read, read it, and, eventually, years later, sold it, rather than move a box of comics one more time. By the time I sold those earliest issues, I had largely fallen out of the world of the tights and capes crowd, and when I did read comics, I was what they call a “trade waiter,” meaning that I tended to wait until a collected edition came out and pick that up, rather than reading individual issues as they were released.

There was something about the organization and completeness of trades that appealed to me – still does, really. But recently, when I started thrifting with Eli from Analog Sunday, I got back into single issues. Old horror comics, mostly, and movie and video game tie-ins. Weird one-offs that only ran for a few issues. Things that were never collected into trades, and probably never will be.

And as I started picking those up, I was reminded of the other thing that gets lost when you only read comics in collected form. Not just the forgotten titles that disappear into the dustbin of history. The ephemera that goes along with a single issue. The ads, sure, that’s part of it. I recently read a Darkman comic from 1993 and virtually every ad in the thing was either for Dungeons & Dragons or DragonStrike, which was a trip. But also inserts and other oddities that are probably still ads, really, but take on other dimensions.

Recently, I picked up a random issue of Time Masters from 1990 out of a back-issue bin. What drew my attention was that the cover looked, at a glance, like early Mignola. But when I flipped through it, I found an unexpected treasure. A stapled-in fold-out guide to Nightbreed, which had only just hit theaters.

This delightful piece of forgotten marketing ephemera was much more interesting to me, personally, than the comic – and also worth the price of a cheap back-issue. And it would never have found its way into a collection.